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The Art of Charitable Enterprise

Janis Clapoff champions corporate social responsibility as the GM of Ojai Valley Inn & Spa.

Monday, June 06, 2011
John Buchanan
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Beginning in 1986, as the rookie GM of the Sheraton Park Avenue in New York, Janis Clapoff embraced the notion that hotels should give back to their communities – long before the term “corporate social responsibility.” Ever since, whether it’s feeding the homeless or helping an employee with a financial problem, Clapoff has been a leader and innovator in the art of charitable enterprise. In late 2008, she took the reins of the 308-key Ojai Valley Inn & Spa, which opened in 1923.
Clapoff recently spoke with Buyer Interactive about her mission and lessons learned.

How has your charitable work evolved from the late 1980s until the last few years?
In the environment where I was living and working in New York in the 1980s, I found that most of our employees did not come from [affluent] lifestyles. You saw people struggle. You heard people’s personal stories. They couldn’t come to work that day because they had to care for a loved one with a major disability. There was always some story that drew your heart in. And given the diversity that we have in the hotel business, if you’re going to have these people from all these different walks of life, you have to be willing to approach an employee when [you know] they really need money or some other kind of assistance. And that is always a good way to give back.

So one of your points of focus has always been your own employees in need?
Yes. In that kind of situation, we raise money from our employees to give back to a fellow
employee in need.

At what point did you start to realize there would be tangible business benefits in doing this, in addition to the personal satisfaction?
Most recently, with the downturn in the economy, the corporate clients that had previously frequented us but didn’t anymore would tell us that it was imperative that they used hotels that gave back to the community. And that was especially true with the group business that we were going after over the past two years. The meeting hosts or planners would ask us those kinds of questions, and it became apparent that they would not stay at places that were not giving back a percentage of what they made. Because a [major group] brings in a lot of money, it was becoming apparent that it was a very, very important part of doing business with big corporations.

How did your most recent activities take things to a new level?
The irony when I got to Ojai Valley Inn in late 2008 was that I had spent my whole career giving back, but when I got here we were looking at the worst time in hotel history – and especially for luxury properties. And the downturn meant we couldn’t give anymore. We just couldn’t, when we were worried about paying our bills and keeping out staff.

So how did you decide you could just do it on your own?
It wasn’t a matter of saying “We’re not going to give anymore.” The question was, “How can we do it?” So the team came up with different events that would attract people to come up here. And at the same time, we would give the full profits back to several charities. And we did events for national charities that were bigger draws in terms of room nights. But we also did dinners and other events for local charities, as well. And from those events, we managed to generate cash for both national and local charities.

What’s a good example of a major event you did?
We did a Celebrity Chef Golf Tournament in 2009 and brought in several celebrity chefs to make it a national event for the charity Share Our Strength. The golf was played on our course over a weekend. We had a huge welcome cocktail party where the celebrity chefs had food stations. The next day, they played in the golf tournament with guests. The event raised more than $10,000. We’ve also done several smaller events and raised an enormous amount of money for local charities. For example, we did a 1940s dinner dance in 2010 that drew 125 guests. It was done in our ballroom. That event raised $6,000 for Help of Ojai.

What are the key things a hotel GM should do to initiate such an effort?
The main thing is that a hotel has to choose its charity or charities and be true to them – and not over-promise and under-deliver. And my experience says you choose two charities and do them really well in terms of giving back a lot of money, instead of spreading the same activity over six or seven organizations and over-saturating yourself in the marketplace. Then you have to start to really watch your money work in the organizations you’re supporting. Then you need to make sure that your people are aware of what you’re doing so that their heart is in it, too. They have to feel that it’s being done as a company and as a team.
John Buchanan
Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division
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